Though embracing an array of different musical genres, the Birmingham singer-songwriter is generally associated with folksy acoustic. However, while that may be the bedrock here, there’s a more electric and at times 80s rock presence at work. Mixed and mastered by fellow Birmingham musician David Benjamin Blower, available as a Bandcamp download, More White Elephants opens with the pulsing percussive bass, sparse tinkling of Becky Pickin’s electric piano and Andy Miles’s guitar of the rather wonderful slow walking ‘White Elephants’, an ineffably sad number about a father’s sadness that his children, his white elephants, are unwilling or unable to leave the nest and have lives of their own, achingly captured in the lines “Well I’m proud of my sons/But it hurts to have lived with them alone for so long/I wish they’d move on… I’m out of ideas/And I’ve tried to look out for them for so many years/As time lingers on/Despite my best efforts, they’re no further on… They’re bold and devoted, gentle and kind/Made of only the best parts of me/But each day they’re wasting away on the vine”.
By contrast, featuring Vincent Gould, the other half of his electronic alt-folk duo Waler, on slide, ‘That’s How It Goes’ is a short, scratchy blues lament by an ageing musician (“My guitar is cool but no one wants to play with me anymore”) while, guitar solo from Miles, ‘Nobody Wants You’ has him channelling his inner Morrissey on another song again touching on an artist’s frustrations at lack of recognition or support (“After all that you’ve done/Still nobody wants you, you’ve followed their plans/Still nobody wants you…They don’t say “just give up/Cause nobody wants you”/Yet they won’t lift you up”), closing with the damning “You’ve got the rest of your life/Why don’t you do something else?”
That undercurrent theme of rejection, isolation and feelings of failure that can overwhelm a musician continues into ‘Who You Are’ (“Here we are, not where you thought you’d/ Be at this stage of your life you thought you knew/Where you were going to end up, By the time you reached the age of 42… This is not what you had planned/When you played in our first band”) a propulsive bluesy riffing track with driving drums and fingersnapping percussives that echoes the previous number in the line “All that promise you showed where had it all gone?/Was it worth all that sacrifice?/Would you be happier if you chose another life?” But, at the same time, it has that sense of being unable to douse the fire within, even if the flames never catch (“Can a person be content/With a talent left unspent?/ It’s who you are/There’s nothing you can do”).
Conjuring the softer side of Morrissey’s balladry, his voice quietly gathering intensity, it returns to parental ambivalence on the ruminative fingerpicked ‘My Children’ (“Lately I’ve been criticised for lacking pragmatism/Maybe now is a good time to give up on my children/They’ve been nothing but a vice, an unhealthy compulsion/Taking over my whole life like a bad religion/So I should cut my ties/Resign myself to nihilism, without them”) as well as that feeling of growing older and that your children became the sole obsessive reason for your life (“Maybe when I was in my prime, I could be forgiven/For wasting so much of my time on this naive mission/But I can’t justify/More hours set aside to study a hobby/I ought to knuckle down/And pull my finger out and focus on progress”).
Olly Forrester on drums and Gould on harps and strings on the circling fingerpicked ‘No Church’ returns to images of isolation and disillusion (“No church for me, no family/I’d rather be alone/Community is not for me/All those I’ve seen have shown/God has died or else he lied”) with self-reliance the only refuge because “the heart is where the home is”.
After all this, it ends on the rather more upbeat and optimistic note of the folksy picked flickering campfire singalong ‘I Don’t Know How I Know This’ (“Things may get much worse but someday I can tell/The world is going to wake up to itself/And be at last in perfect health… When all of those who’ve tried to drive us back/Will suddenly run out of track”) as he sings “I believe in paradise, here on earth not after life/And isn’t that worth sacrifice/To see the best of us revived?”.
John has been hovering on the fringes for a while; given the exposure, this may be the time to see him register on more than just the local radar.
Artist’s website: www.johnnapier.bandcamp.com/
‘White Elephants’ – the lockdown recording: